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Friday, February 1, 2013

Using computer-game methods to teach about environmentally friendly technologies for oil/gas sites

EFD Virtual Rig

Epic Software Group works on HARC's EFD Virtual Rig photo shoot

Welcome to the EFD Virtual Rig, an online oil/gas exploration site where Ralph and Rhonda Roughneck educate visitors about the inner workings of a standard drill rig and about some of the technologies that can help make them more environmentally friendly.

Ralph is the rig’s “tool pusher – the boss,” as a burly figure introduces himself before escorting a visitor on a guided tour.

Rhonda, a younger oil-field worker – clad like Ralph in protective coverall, gloves and hard hat – then shares insights on new technologies to reduce environmental impacts during the visitor’s self-directed exploration of the site.

Along that trek around the rig, you’ll encounter various interactive objects. Some offer simple actions a visitor can perform, while others offer menus of options providing information about environmentally friendly technologies in videos, 360-degree views and by other means.

The EFD Virtual Rig was the brainchild of Rich Haut, who heads HARC’s Environmentally Friendly Drilling Systems (EFD) Program. It was “soft-launched” last fall to an invited audience of initial visitors, who helped refine it with suggestions such as the inclusion of worker safety information.

Under contract to HARC, the site was created by Epic Software Group (like HARC, located in The Woodlands, north of Houston), which used advanced 3-D video-game software of the kind that also fashions sophisticated, first-person action games.

“I first started kicking around the idea in 2006,” said Haut, who added that his goal was to create an online tool “to get into the mindset of employees about addressing environmental issues” on drilling sites.

Long-expected federal funding for the EFD Virtual Rig didn’t become available until early 2012, however, and work at Epic Software started last March.

Haut believes the result, particularly the rig’s interactivity, is unique – “the first time you can actually tour a rig site virtually, which is out there, free to the public.”

He sees the EFD Virtual Rig as “an evergreen kind of project” and “a work in progress,” which will evolve after the introduction of the completed rig to the general public around April 1. Plans call for the addition of other interactive features representing more elements of a typical oil/gas drilling site.

These added features could include facilities such as hydraulic fracturing equipment and a well pad with production equipment and tanks, he said.

When charged to focus on workforce development by state officials administering the federal funds, Haut said he decided to target not just current workers, but also those of the future.

“This is the reason we looked at using gaming software,” he said, “so we could engage everyone from middle school and high school students through current employees who may be looking for cost-effective technologies that can address environmental issues.”

Already, there have been discussions with the Houston Museum of Natural Science and other museums about making the EFD Virtual Rig available for exploration by their visitors.

“I would love to see this thing in all the natural science museums across the United States,” Haut said.

Vic Cherubini, president of Epic Software Group, said the gaming software that was used, called Unity 3D, allows the Virtual Rig to be readily transferred to platforms other than desktop and laptop computers, such as tablet computers and game consoles.

“It’s a very, very complicated product and we’re proud of it,” Cherubini said. “You can give people actual, real-world scenarios that they can learn from.”

With the incorporation of additional facilities on a drilling site, Haut envisions “sort of a real world, where you can actually move around and see other operations and experience them” in ways that aren’t possible by reading a text or viewing a simple graphic, he added.

“Rich now has something that even the big oil companies don’t have,” he said. “That’s something that’s exciting for HARC to have – a breakthrough in training technologies.”